Thursday, January 31, 2013

Enlightened: Higher Power (2.3)

Let me introduce you to something I like to call "the Judy Greer analogy". It's named after that annoying trope in romantic comedies wherein the blonde, perky, hilariously scatterbrained lead is given able back-up by their doting best friend, a character usually played by a Judy Greer, or a Joan Cusack, or a Rita Wilson. One of them will do. But, in these circumstances, the word 'character' ought to be used loosely, since these 'characters' bear little in the way of a discernible existence removed from the romantic tribulations of the movie's lead. Their every move or line of dialogue is somehow related to their on-screen BFF, and they have no real personality away from every once in a while having a funny 'quirk' that'll get a couple of laughs during the movie.

I bring this up, for those out there wondering, because Higher Power focuses entirely on a character who at best could be described as a supporting player. But, even so, he's never taken up that much screentime, and hasn't appeared at all so far this season. But what makes this particularly notable is that Amy's ex Levi, still played with charming pessimism by Luke Wilson, carries this episode with considerable ease. The greatest works of fiction are able to make even the most ancillary characters feel real and fully-formed, enough at least to give you some indication of where they would be when they're not on-screen, or not being written about. Levi has come in and out of Enlightened ever since the show began, but he's always been a character you can imagine is existing somewhere, hitting his head against a wall, or sitting down on his couch unable to come to terms with how bad everything has gotten. All of that makes this week's episode surprisingly un-surprising. Despite featuring just two minutes of Laura Dern, it never feels like we're watching something alien or unusual. It's just this extremely vivid middle-aged guy experiencing his own transformation, Amy Jellicoe's lack of presence be damned.

Higher Power is a deliberately small episode. Like the very best of this show, it's a quiet, intimate depiction of an individual merely existing -- getting through the day, trying hard to not let their baser instincts get the better of them. Levi, stranded at Open Air following his sorta-epiphany at the end of last season, essentially experiences three major chapters of his journey here: emotional dissatisfaction, an opportunity to escape, and finally a sense of enlightenment.

The book-end chapters are likely the most successful. The entire first act is a brilliant re-do of Amy's initial experiences back in the pilot, Levi's voiceover nihilistic and rageful instead of introspective and wise like Amy's, yet still full of burning feeling. He even tries to literally retrace her footsteps, swimming around to find the turtle that Amy saw as a kind of sign back when this show first began, only instead Levi finds a bunch of garbage at the bottom of the ocean. It's an easy but endearingly funny metaphor.

It's in that sense of recreation that Levi eventually realizes how much he needs to find his own path. He can't just replicate Amy's so-called positivity in order to get results. He needs to work and discover things on his own. Hooking up with two fellow patients, he briefly experiments with reckless abandon during a trip to casinos and fancy hotels, but finds it all somehow empty. Instead he misses the best version of himself, the version  that Amy always sees in him. Accepting that he still loves her is an important step to take. While I don't think they'll ever get back together, and I'm not entirely sure it'll be a great idea if they did, it takes a lot to reconnect that kind of love, even if it's never explicitly acted upon at any point. Just that kind of acceptance, it all works.

Higher Power never quite hits the heartbreaking emotional resonance of the similarly-structured Consider Helen last season (to be fair, what could?), but this is still masterful television. It's certainly not showy and fun, which explains why Enlightened remains entirely ignored by any form of media, but instead tense and knowing. It's a beautiful translation of just wanting to be better, a feeling that surely all of us can recognize in one way or another. And it's harsh to see that depicted so honestly, absolutely. But it's also that much more moving once a character hits that moment of clarity. Levi is somebody we've not seen a ton of, but boy does he live and feel whenever he's on-screen. And that's what separates great fiction from disposable, throwaway hooey. A

Mike White Director Mike White

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